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Rice to warn Europe to back off over detainees

December 3, 2005

Rice to warn Europe to back off over detainees

By Saul Hudson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to give allies in Europe a response next week to their pressure over Washington's treatment of terrorism suspects: back off. 

For almost a month, the United States has been on the defensive, refusing to deny or confirm media reports the United States has held prisoners in secret in Eastern Europe and transported detainees incommunicado across the continent. 

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks to journalists at the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington December 2, 2005. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
The European Union has demanded that Washington address the allegations to allay fears of illegal U.S. practices. The concerns are rampant in among the European public and parliaments, already critical of U.S. prisoner-abuse scandals in Iraq and Guantanamo, Cuba. 

But Rice will shift to offense when she visits Europe next week, in a strategy that has emerged in recent days and been tested by her spokesman in public and in her private meetings with European visitors. 

Rice, who has been largely silent on detainees and had an unusually low-profile in Washington during the scandal, said she would personally address the issue in public before heading to Europe. U.S. officials said that could be early on Monday. 

On the trip, she will remind allies they themselves have been cooperating in U.S. operations and tell them to do more to win over their publics as a way to deflect criticism directed at the United States, diplomats and U.S. officials said. 

"It's very clear they want European governments to stop pushing on this," said a European diplomat, who had contact with U.S. officials over the handling of the scandals. "They were stuck on the defensive for weeks, but suddenly the line has toughened up incredibly," the diplomat said. 

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said Rice told him in Washington she expected allies to trust that America does not allow rights abuses -- a sign she will avoid giving Europe a detailed response on U.S. intelligence work. 

And she pointedly did not give Ahern a personal assurance Ireland has not been used for secret prisoner transfers because he had already heard that denial from the U.S. ambassador, a senior State Department official said. 

BLUNT BEHIND THE SCENES 

Rice will deliver her message in private meetings with officials in Germany and at the EU headquarters in Brussels during a trip that starts on Monday and also includes a stop in Romania, which denies accusations it hosts a secret prison. 

There are signs Europe has already begun to get the message to ease up on the controversy. 

Ahern said he accepted the U.S. word. Germany, whose foreign minister also pressed Rice this week during a visit, said it would wait patiently for a U.S. response. 

But the State Department also plans a stronger defense of its policies to try to reframe a debate in Europe that threatens to undo some of the repair Rice has made this year to trans-Atlantic ties that were frayed over the Iraq war. 

Rice will stress in public that Washington does not violate allies' sovereignty or break international law, and she will remind publics their governments are cooperating in a fight against militants who have bombed commuters in Madrid and London, senior U.S. officials said. 

"It is the responsibility, also, of governments to explain as clearly as possible to their publics and publics around the world what it is that they are doing in fighting the war on terrorism," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. 

Rice began the year on her first foreign trip as secretary of state wooing European allies with a charm offensive that set a new tone for relations after disputes over Iraq. 

But the top diplomat from the sole superpower can also get tough with her European counterparts. 

U.S. diplomats recount how her successful stance against EU plans to lift an arms embargo against China unnerved Europeans, as she sternly told them not to sell weapons that could end up being aimed at U.S. forces in Asia. 

One foreign minister spilled his drink when she delivered that warning over coffee in Brussels, a senior U.S. official said. 

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